Having been a fan of Orwell’s writing style in 1984, I didn’t hesitate to read Down and Out in Paris and London when one of my sixth form teachers recommended it to me. Perhaps it is just because I am nosy, but I really like to read about other people’s lives, especially the lives of renowned writers, so Orwell’s memoir was always going to be a winner! What’s more, given my interest in France and french culture, and the fact that I have spent the last two years living in London, the idea that the memoir tells the story of what happened both in Paris and in London appeals to me greatly!
Firstly, I must say how raw Orwell’s writing is, and how brilliant I found this. He spares the reader of nothing, meaning that we get to experience poverty in the cities in the same way that Orwell did himself (well, as much as is possible without actually experiencing it first hand). As a result of this, I had vivid images of the scenes in my head for the entirety of the memoir, thanks to the author’s genius use of figurative language.
I love that in publishing the book, Orwell was flouting all expectations of literature at the time. He exposed the squalor and hardships faced by the poor working classes, which was so consciously kept hidden from the middle and upper classes- the main audience for contemporary literature, given their almost exclusive access to education.I also love that, Orwell shows that being exposed to, and forced to live in, such conditions does not result in desensitisation: no matter how long one is forced to live like an animal, it never ceases to be disgusting, repulsive and upsetting.
Of course, there is very little that I can say in terms of plot, given that the book recounts real-life events. However, I can say that it was seeing the progression throughout the book, as well as Orwell’s changing opinion of the poor (he summarises his changed opinions at the very end of the text) is actually very eye-opening, as a modern reader, and would have been rather scandalous in the thirties, I imagine.
The lodging houses, or ‘spikes’, as Orwell explains they were referred to by those who frequented them, and soup kitchens were my favourite aspects to read about in this memoir. This is perhaps because they were the most shocking aspects, but also because it allowed Orwell to ‘zoom in’ on individuals in both cities, meaning the reader can experience a different range of people in such poverty.
I would, without a doubt, recommend Down and Out in Paris and London to anyone with an interest in people or places. For the book’s entirety, I truly felt like I was a fly on the wall in the situations that Orwell found himself in. What I like most is that, even though the text is a non-fiction memoir, it could easily be mistaken for a fictional novel- it is just that interesting and carefully written!